Using tobacco plants to fight Zika: ASU vaccine shows promising results

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When it comes to tobacco, most schools teach their students to “just say no,” but researchers at Arizona State University are using tobacco plants for medicine. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) When it comes to tobacco, most schools teach their students to “just say no,” but researchers at Arizona State University are using tobacco plants for medicine. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Their latest effort: genetically reprogramming the plants to produce a vaccine for Zika. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Their latest effort: genetically reprogramming the plants to produce a vaccine for Zika. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
The research is led by Dr. Qiang Chen. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) The research is led by Dr. Qiang Chen. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

When it comes to tobacco, most schools teach their students to “just say no,” but researchers at Arizona State University are using tobacco plants for medicine.

Their latest effort: genetically reprogramming the plants to produce a vaccine for Zika.

Testing on mice shows promising results, according to a study published online Wednesday in Scientific Reports – Nature.

The research is led by Dr. Qiang Chen.

“It’s really, really important for us to meet this urgent need,” he said.

[RELATED: ASU researchers $1 Zika test]

Many research teams around the world are working on vaccines for Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that’s been linked to devastating birth defects. As of January 2017, there were about 40 Zika vaccine candidates under development, according to the World Health Organization. 

The ASU team’s method is the world’s first plant-based Zika vaccine, according to the university’s Biodesign Institute.

“In general, we have shown that plant-based technology can reduce production cost significantly compared with other platforms,” Chen said.

There are other benefits of the plant-based approach. Unlike vaccine methods that rely on mammal cells, plant cells don’t run the risk of passing a pathogen onto a human, Chen said.

ASU researchers have been using tobacco plants to make vaccines for more than a decade because the plants grow fast, they’re easy to grow in large quantities, and they adapt well to genetic modification.

Chen said his team’s vaccine is also designed to tackle a potentially huge problem facing other methods. Vaccines that use a full copy of the Zika virus to produce an immune response could actually make someone more susceptible to similar viruses in the same family, called flaviviruses.

That includes viruses like dengue.

Instead, Chen’s team uses a small, carefully selected portion of the virus, “so that it will not trigger an immune response against the other flaviviruses.”

“We have shown that our response is just as robust as the other vaccine candidates, but at the same time we have shown that it does not enhance the infection of Dengue virus and can potentially be much cheaper,” he said.

The next step for the ASU team is testing in primates. Chen said if all goes according to plan, they should be ready to enter human trials in the next two to three years.

Another ASU team, led by Dr. Alexander Green, unveiled a $1 Zika test last year.

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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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